Weekend Preview: Woody Allen’s Great “Blue Jasmine” Leads an Odd Crop of New Releases

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Woody Allen, Steve Jobs, and Ronald Reagan all converge at the box office this weekend, and I can imagine they’d have one helluva conversation.

The key opening of the week is Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” a film I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks ago. I am a Woody-ite, without question, one of those folks who believes he has never directed a truly bad film. (Note that I said “directed”; even I can’t defend some of the films he merely starred in, like “Scenes From a Mall” and “Picking Up the Pieces.”)

Every Woody film — even those I do not love, such as “September,” “Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” and “Scoop” — has its moments, and every one is watchable. But every so often, Allen hits an artistic home run, a movie that even the haters must acknowledge. “Midnight in Paris” was one of those, but with “Blue Jasmine,” he has directed a film that I believe is as strong as any drama he ever made.

Cate Blanchett is a sure-fire nominee, and possible winner, as Jasmine, an unhinged woman who has lost everything. Sally Hawkins is fine as her sister, Alec Baldwin utterly believable as Jasmine’s Madoff-esque husband, and, surprisingly, Andrew Dice Clay is wonderfully effective as her former brother-in-law. He has a scene near the film’s end that is among “Jasmine”‘s best.

There are moments of humor, but “Blue Jasmine” is straight-up drama, an affecting, incisive portrait that should rank among 2013’s finest films. It has received rapturous reviews and very strong early box office; I do not expect it to make as much dough as “Paris,” but it should have no trouble finding an adult audience. It is now playing at Dipson’s Amherst and Eastern Hills theaters.

To tie in with the film’s release, I’m hoping to finally put together my ranking of Woody’s oeuvre from top to bottom. He has, um, a lot of movies, so it will take some time, but I am ON THIS.

After “Jasmine,” things get a little weird. And what every one of the other films opening this weekend has in common is that they do not interest me in the least.

The last month has been crazy for the makers of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” with a title controversy that garnered a great deal of press. I have not been impressed with the trailers for this one, mainly due to the casting — Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as Ronald and Nancy Reagan? Liev Schreiber as LBJ?! Robin Williams as Ike??! JOHN CUSACK AS NIXON??!! But I think this will find a sizable audience, and there have been some extraordinary reviews so. Well, better reviews than Daniels’ “The Paperboy,” at least.

As much as I hated to say it at the time, “Kick-Ass” did nothing for me. I found the jokes and story stale, and not particularly clever, although Chloe Grace Moretz was a revelation. She is the only reason I might stumble into “Kick-Ass 2,” a sequel to a film that most certainly was not a hit.

Ashton Kutcher plays Steve Jobs in “Jobs.” Enough said.

“Paranoia” rounds out the majors, and I’m stunned that a film with this oh-so-general title and plot was able to cast Gary Oldman and Harrison Ford. ($$!) This looks only slightly more interesting than “Firewall.”

Note that two popular Bollywood entries are opening: “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara” and “Chennai Express.”

Tonight and on Thursday (August 22), The Screening Room offers “A Night at the Grindhouse” with the wonderfully titled “The Horror of Party Beach” and “The Beast Must Die,” while “Murder on the Orient Express” is back for one more screening at 7:30 on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Bacchus goes big with “The Avengers” on Wednesday (August 21); the UB North Campus has two of summer 2013’s biggest hits, “Fast & Furious 6” and “The Great Gatsby,” at 8:45 tonight and Tuesday (August 20), respectively; and UB South Campus features “Gatsby” at 8:45 on Wednesday (August 21).

Photo: Left to right: Peter Sarsgaard as Dwight and Cate Blanchett as Jasmine; photo by Merrick Morton  © 2013 Gravier Productions, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Wednesday Round-Up: Stanley Kubrick Loved “Citizen Kane” … and “White Men Can’t Jump”

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There is something fascinating about what films were favorites of great filmmakers — especially when some of the selections are a surprise. In the past week, two lists for two major directors — Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee — were released in different forms.

The late, great Stanley K.’s cinephile tendencies were the subject of a wonderful article by Nick Wrigley for the British Film Institute. As Wrigley writes:

“I count myself among the many admirers of Kubrick’s films and his remarkable aptitude for problem solving in all areas of life. I would argue that the only remaining unexplored area of Stanley’s life in film is his relationship with, and love of, other people’s films. In his later life he chose not to talk publicly about such things, giving only a couple of interviews to large publications when each new film was ready – but through his associates, friends, and fellow filmmakers it’s now possible to piece together a revealing jigsaw. I wanted to try and pull together all the verified information I could locate and have it looked over by a wise, authoritative eye.”

That eye belongs to Kubrick’s brother-in-law, Jan Harlan, who is interviewed by Wrigley in a separate story (see quotes below).

Wrigley points to a list Kubrick submitted to an American magazine named Cinema in 1963:

1. “I Vitelloni” (Fellini, 1953)

2. “Wild Strawberries” (Bergman, 1957)

3. “Citizen Kane” (Welles, 1941)

4. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (Huston, 1948)

5. “City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)

6. “Henry V” (Olivier, 1944)

7. “La notte” (Antonioni, 1961)

8. “The Bank Dick” (Fields, 1940)

9. “Roxie Hart” (Wellman, 1942)

10. “Hell’s Angels” (Hughes, 1930)

Later, Wrigley mentions a list “that appeared in September 1999 on the alt.movies.kubrick Usenet newsgroup courtesy of his daughter Katharina Kubrick-Hobbs, a list of films she “happen to know that he liked:

“‘Closely Observed Trains’ (Menzel, 1966)
‘An American Werewolf in London’ (Landis, 1981)
‘The Fireman’s Ball’ (Forman, 1967)
‘Metropolis’ (Lang, 1927)
‘The Spirit of the Beehive’ (Erice, 1973)
‘White Men Can’t Jump’ (Shelton, 1992)
‘La Belle et la Bête’ (Cocteau, 1946)
‘The Godfather’ (Coppola, 1972)
‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (Hooper, 1974)
‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (Lumet, 1975)
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (Forman, 1975)
‘Citizen Kane’ (Welles, 1941)
‘Abigail’s Party’ (Leigh, 1977)
‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (Demme, 1991)
and I know that he hated ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Ha Ha!”

Harlan points to others, including George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing” (1988): “Kubrick watched it three times and told Sluizer that it was ‘the most horrifying film I’ve ever seen.’ Sluizer asked: ‘Even moreso than The Shining?’ Kubrick replied that he thought it was.” As Harlan adds, “‘The Vanishing’ was real — ‘The Shining’ was a ghost film — a huge difference.” And the list also includes … “White Men Can’t Jump,” which is just awesome.

Wrigley asked Harlan for his thoughts on the undeniably enjoyable yet certainly silly documentary “Room 237”; Harlan’s thoughts.:

“I think it’s the silliest film ever. A complete rip-off. To say that hotel employees on the last day before closing — waiting with luggage for transport — is a reference to the Holocaust, is an insult to both Stanley and the victims of this greatest crime in human history. So are all other references to 1942. To go to the length of making drawings to prove that the large interiors of the hotel could never fit into the smallish place we see from the outside is a joke. Any schoolboy can see that! It’s a ghost film! Nothing [in ‘Room 237’] makes any logical sense.

I did not take the documentary that seriously — I thoroughly enjoyed it, yet never found any of the theories convincing. (It says a lot about how we read and interpret movies, sometimes illogically.) But it is unsurprising that someone close to Kubrick would have that reaction.

 

The rest of this week’s round-up, including a killer list from Spike Lee:

 

Image from BFI article. Stanley Kubrick, photographed by Dmitri Kasterine in 1969 on the set of A Clockwork Orange. Credit: Dmitri Kasterine: www.kasterine.com

Wednesday Round-Up: Is Woody Allen America’s Most Secretive Filmmaker? Plus, a Month of Truffaut on TCM

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I love the secrecy that surrounds every Woody Allen project, the way a film would be mentioned as “Woody Allen Fall Project 2002” or “Woody Allen Summer Project 2008.” That is still the case; sometimes little is known about his latest film until just weeks before it opens.

Take “Blue Jasmine,” which opens later this month. I’m not sure if anyone was certain that it was a drama until the first trailer dropped. After all, this is a cast that includes Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay (!). Surely, we could expect laughs, correct? Perhaps not, as the trailer seems quite dark — darkly comical, perhaps, but dark all the same. I think? This IFC.com post summed it up nicely:

“The tone of this trailer is all over the place, making it difficult to tell if ‘Blue Jasmine’ is meant to be funny or sad. The story, the music, the fact that we see two comedians who don’t actually do anything funny — everything could be taken both ways.”

We’ll find out in just a few weeks. Until then, let’s start our round-up with some nicely vague details on Woody’s NEXT film, set to star Colin Firth and Emma Stone. (It looks like this level of secrecy is nothing new; check out this article from 1982.)

Photo: Left to right: Director Woody Allen, Cate Blanchett, and Alden Ehrenreich
Photo by Jessica Miglio © 2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The Summer Movies of 1995 and 2013: It Was the Best of Times, it Was the Blurst of Times

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A friend recently pointed out that this seems to be a pretty awful summer for big-studio blockbusters, and I think that’s a reasonable argument. Behold this list of some of the biggies:

“Iron Man 3,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “The Hangover Part III,” “Fast & Furious 6,” “Epic,” “After Earth,” “The Internship,” “This is the End,” “Man of Steel,” “World War Z,” “Monsters University,” “White House Down,” “Despicable Me 2,” “The Lone Ranger,” “Pacific Rim,” “Grown Ups 2,” “Turbo,” “Red 2,” “R.I.P.D.,” “The Wolverine,” “Elysium,” “Disney’s Planes,” “Kick-Ass 2”

Lots of sequels. Lots of star power. Lots of possible flops. (I’m looking at you, “R.I.P.D.”) It is not to say there is no imagination or ingenuity here, and even monsters like “World War Z” and “Pacific Rim” represent atypical attempts at the genre film. But there is little here to get overly excited about. And that’s too bad.

I have so many fond memories of seeing big summer movies, some I’m ashamed to admit I paid for — “City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold” and “The Cowboy Way” seemed like good ideas at the time — some I still enjoy revisiting.

The year 2013 most seems to resemble, at least in terms of iffy looking blockbusters, is 1995. That was … a pretty week year. Take a gander at this rum bunch, which I’ve out on separate lines for maximum impact:

“French Kiss”

“Crimson Tide”

“Die Hard with a Vengeance”

“Forget Paris”

“Braveheart”

“Casper”

“Johnny Mnemonic”

“The Bridges of MadisonCounty”

“Congo”

“Batman Forever”

“Pocahontas”

“Apollo 13”

“Judge Dredd”

“First Knight”

“Species”

“The Indian in the Cupboard”

“Nine Months”

“Under Siege 2: DarkTerritory”

“Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home”

“Clueless”

“The Net”

“Operation Dumbo Drop”

“Waterworld”

“Babe”

“Something to Talk About”

“Virtuosity”

“Dangerous Minds”

“The Baby-Sitters Club”

“Mortal Kombat”

Pretty grim, right? I know “Braveheart” is beloved, “Apollo 13” is solid, “Die Hard With a Vengeance” was “Die Hard” when “Die Hard” was still “Die Hard,” but outside of those, “Clueless,” and “Babe,” every other film is one I never wish to watch again. Even that summer’s indie releases were rather slight: “Desperado,” “The City of Lost Children,” “Fluke,” “Smoke,” “Kids,” “Unzipped,” “The Usual Suspects,” “The Brothers McMullen.” Not a bad bunch, exactly, but not a lengthy one, either.

Yet this summer, at least, there is something else happening, something noteworthy: It’s a phenomenal season for indies. Check out this small list of independent films that have opened or are scheduled for release from May through August:

“Before Midnight,” “Frances Ha,” “Only God Forgives,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” The Grandmaster,” “The Bling Ring,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Prince Avalanche,” “The To-Do List,” “The Spectacular Now,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Girl Most Likely,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Byzantium,” “The Hunt,” “Berberian Sound Studio,” “The Way, Way Back”

I can’t speak to the quality of most of these — I’ve seen “Frances,” “Much Ado,” “Girl Most Likely,” and “Byzantium,” but none of the others — but I can say with confidence that it’s an eclectic, fascinating mix. Any summer that includes films from Richard Linklater, Noah Baumbach, Nicholas Winding Refn, Wong Kar-wai, Sofia Coppola, Joss Whedon, Woody Allen, and Neil Jordan is going to offer a few gems.

At the very least, we can be thankful that the travesty that was “A Good Day to Die Hard” opened in February. It would have made a bad summer even worse.

 

Photo from “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Wednesday Round-Up: I Wonder What Andy Warhol and Jack Nicholson Were Talking About …

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A diverse mix of links highlight this week’s round-up, including the U.K. debut of Shane Meadows’ new Stone Roses doc, the screening of a Woody Allen classic in Buffalo, and, of course, more on the box office failure of “After Earth.”

  • I hope you’ll be reading more from me soon on “Made of Stone,” Shane Meadows’ fly-on-the-wall documentary about the reunion of the mighty Stone Roses. It likely won’t get much play in the United States — and the meh reaction to the band’s Coachella headlining performances won’t help — but hopefully American anglophiles and Britpop freaks like myself will have a chance to see it soon. The film’s website has some cool details on the production and some great interviews, like this one, with Meadows. He seems to have a real understanding of how utterly important this group is to fans, and I’m sure that comes across in the movie; as the director of the great “This is England” puts it, “If you attach yourself to certain people at a certain point in your life, they never become human again, they’re always gods. The Stone Roses are like that for me.”
  • The web has been aflutter with David Lynch news this week, including word of a new album (featuring the lovely Lykke Li) and a strange piece of video that seems to indicate a new film is in the works. Lynch holds a special place for me, which I’m sure will come up on this site. Two of my favorite DL memories involve his 21st century classic, “Mulholland Drive.” The first is seeing it with my girlfriend (later wife) and friend while he smuggled in a messy Arby’s meal, and the second is staying up until the wee hours of the night with friends in college, breaking down “Mulholland” for our Paranoia and Film class. These five theories on WTF is happening in the film have been around for ages, but it’s always fun to revisit.
  • Coming this Friday and Saturday at the Screening Room in Amherst: “Sorry, Wrong Number” at 7:30 followed by “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” at 9:15. I imagine Woody Allen’s “Tiger Lily” would be a fun group watch.
  • I really enjoyed this piece on the horrendous “A Good Day to Die Hard” that Scott Mestow wrote for The Week. I’ve always been a big fan of the series; “Die Hard 2” was one of the first R-rated films I ever saw. And I even thought “Live Free or Die Hard” was moderately acceptable. But “A Good Day” … It was a stunner on every level, and not in a good way. The film is on DVD and Blu-ray now. See it, and you’ll agree with me.
  • New York Magazine has a cool slideshow featuring images from the Andy Warhol: American Icon exhibit in Maine; my favorite is the Jack Nicholson pic above.
  • I’m not sure anyone is truly shocked that “After Earth” flopped, but the complete failure on every level, from box office to reviews, is noteworthy. So for Sony, what now?
  • I’m on the Indiewire network of sites several times a day, and Shadow and Act is one of my favorites. Here, the site’s Tambay A. Obenson points out how a recent New York Times story on what he refers to as “The New York Times’ annual ‘state of black cinema’ (broadly speaking) nod,” is pretty much “the same damn thing” he wrote on the blog recently. As a longtime reader of the site, I can tell you that Shadow and Act offers a far superior analysis of these issues day-in and day-out than the Times does in one story.
  • Finally … What the hell happened to Mary Harron?